Universities Serve as Champions of Net Zero at COP28

As the largest UNFCCC Conference of Parties to date, COP28 presented a unique opportunity for universities to take an active role in shaping the implementation of the Paris Agreement around the world, starting firstly on their campuses. Thanks to the rich partnership between SDSN and Monash University, we had the opportunity to facilitate a discussion around our Net Zero on Campus initiative at COP in the Monash University Pavilion.

Of all the tools available to facilitate campus decarbonization, from goal setting, procurement policies, and building retrofits, financing campus net zero efforts at large remain challenging, especially in a post-COVID economic climate. Access to finance and costs differ across higher education institutions based on access, credit rating, and jurisdiction, among other factors.

Investors and philanthropists are increasingly announcing new climate action pledges and universities are a significant market segment requiring an estimated $13B for current net zero pledges and $300B globally. However, the mismatch in investment sizes and diverse credit and jurisdiction risks, among other real or perceived risks, complicate the landscape for investors.

In an effort to help advance creative funding solutions for university decarbonization, SDSN’s Climate & Energy team and Monash University co-hosted a two hour interactive workshop at COP28 bringing together universities, financiers, and philanthropists from around the world. The workshop, entitled “Achieving Net Zero on Campus: Unlocking Finance,” allowed participants to highlight and discuss exemplar university decarbonization pathways, identify obstacles of scaling, and begin to explore creative funding solutions for the university sector together.

The workshop began with opening remarks from Professor Jeffrey Sachs, who emphasized the power of universities to advance decarbonization, the critical role that financing university decarbonization efforts plays in the larger SDG and climate financing gaps, and the need for increased engagement of students and collaboration between academic and financial stakeholders. Professor Sachs’ remarks were followed by expert panel presentations about the key challenges and opportunities to financing the pathway to net zero campuses from both the university and philanthropy leadership perspectives.

First, participants heard from Dr. Karin Hilgersom, President of Truckee Meadows Community College, a public community college and technical college in Nevada, USA. Dr. Hilgersom has charted new directions toward sustainability for the university, for example, through notable workforce training programs that respond to industry needs, including Tesla and Panasonic apprenticeships. Dr. Hilgersom highlighted the importance of including trade schools and community colleges, which tend to be closely connected to their local communities, in larger university sustainability efforts, as well as the need for university leadership to make real commitments to send clear signals and help university administrations understand the importance of the sustainability agenda. 

After hearing from a university leadership perspective, participants heard from Nicole Iseppi, Director of Energy Innovation, Bezos Earth Fund. Ms. Iseppi highlighted the importance of convening academics in the pursuit of decarbonization efforts and shared key examples of opportunities through which academics can collaborate with philanthropy to realize their commitments. The panel presentations were followed by an interactive discussion amongst the panelists and participants, facilitated by Dr. Tim Carter, President, Second Nature and Professor John Thwaites, Chair of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute and Climateworks Centre.

The Net Zero on Campus team is grateful for the participation of its Community members in the workshop and looks forward to continuing this work in the new year to advance practical collaboration between the academic and finance sectors, helping to find and implement creative funding solutions for university decarbonization. We invite you to join our Net Zero on Campus Community to learn more.